Kremlin’s Response to Moscow Race Riots May Make Things Worse

October 18, 2013
Maxim Shipenkov / EPA | Russian police detain immigrants during raid at vegetable warehouse in Moscow on Oct 14, 2013

To say that racism is pandemic in Russia these days might be an understatement. Sunday’s race riots in Moscow were certainly not the first time The Interpreter has raised the alarm over the increasingly-radical nationalist movement. Over the summer,  a Russian paratrooper was killed by a Chechen immigrant in the North Caucasus town of Pugachev. Though the specific circumstances of this incident had little to do with race, the murder sparked a wave of anti-immigrant protests across the region. In St. Petersburg, neo-Nazis and police led a pogrom against migrant fruit sellers in August.

There are many reasons why racism in Russia is rearing its head at this moment. The Interpreter has analyzed some of them in a separate article: “Their Brains Are Like a Wrecking Ball.” Analysis of Moscow’s race riots. The wave of racism is alarming, and could have significant implications for the country moving forward. Racism should never be excused or ignored in and of itself, as it is a cancer that eats away at a society. The fact that should not be lost in this discussion is that the Kremlin has created many of the underlying circumstances that have helped fan the flames of racism, and it is the Kremlin’s actions moving forward which could be the most dangerous.

Blame the Russian government for failed immigration policy

Sub-par living conditions and extreme poverty of many immigrant communities creates a dangerous situation where crime and accidental death are daily constants. In Biryulyovo, for instance, a massive warehouse, employing thousands of workers, was allowed to operate in the open and with impunity. Workers in areas like this are paid little, but are often given low-quality, high-density housing. Crime, fires, disease… the living and working conditions of these migrants is unacceptable and dangerous. As these communities grow, they encroach on other neighborhoods, leading to additional tension as the dangers begin to directly impact native Russians, especially in large cities like Moscow.

Local authorities and police ignore these problems, often because they benefit from them directly. Police take bribes directly from immigrants, or from their employers, to look the other way. Officials also often benefit financially from the presence of cheap labor. The EconoMonitor reports:

Recently, immigrants have begun settling in basements of multi-storey buildings of the major Russian citizens. Most of them work in the sector of public utilities. Today, there are some 250 thousand people in Moscow that live in such conditions. Nobody would question that it is profitable for the heads of utility companies to pay immigrants $300-400. But does it bring benefits to Muscovites? According to Vladimir Garnachuk, a deputy of the Troparevo-Nilulino district council, the official salary of a street cleaner in Moscow is $1700. Senior officials of the utility enterprises take the rest $1400.

Ultimately, it is that the Kremlin that benefits from a broken immigration system, and has instituded both the micro and macro policies needed to maximize that benefit. The Russian government has turned its back on immigration from some countries in order to take advantage of the the cheap (or sometimes slave) labor and now it is paying the price.

Economic problems expose racial fault lines

The Russian economy is struggling at a time when it should be thriving. For years, the Russian economy has been adding skilled-labor jobs and allowing migrants to work the lower-paying unskilled-labor jobs. In recent years, both markets have been squeezed. Fewer unskilled jobs hasn’t meant fewer immigrants, however, which has helped lead to more crime. Fewer skilled jobs has meant that there is at least the perception that immigrants are taking these jobs.

Again, we see how Kremlin policies that brought in immigrants as cheap labor have not changed despite the fact that the economy has. It seems that the latest “ism” to haunt the halls of the Kremlin, however, is “Delusionism,” and while armies of economists continue to warn that endemic corruption and Cold-War style economic protectionism and isolationism is dragging the Russian economy to the ground, and with energy costs stable or falling, relying on natural gas and oil just isn’t going to be enough to avert an economic downturn.

Are all changes good changes?

There are signs that the Russian government is finally taking steps to alter immigration policies and crack down on the inexcusable living conditions. But are the Kremlin’s actions even more worrisome than their years of inaction?

For instance, after increased pressure, and a series of neo-Nazi led pogroms, one of which was caught on film and documented by The Interpreter, authorities rounded up several thousand immigrants, most of them Vietnamese. Many of these workers, however, had been living in the country for years, and they were thrown in an internment camp for an indefinite period of time, until the Russian government can decide what to do with them. The Kremlin’s inaction allowed thousands of these slaves to work in the country for this long without properly dealing with them. Then the Kremlin caved to the demands and concerns of the most racist elements of Russian society. And when it finally acted, the solution may have created a humanitarian crisis worse than the initial problem.

The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an appeal from human rights activists and members of the Russian intelligentsia, describing a pattern of behavior that they wrote was “reminiscent of the methods by which Hitler came to power”:

We can’t really recall a single high-profile trial of “slaveowners”, although we know about a lot of cases (sometimes we were the ones who brought the victims to the prosecutor’s office) when migrant construction workers were thrown out in the street after their documents were taken and they were not paid a cent for their slave labor. Gentlemen, don’t you feel sorry for the slaves? In any case, in our time to appeal for mercy and compassion, to try to protect the migrant workers’ rights, it’s like spitting against the wind. Now it’s not just about the rights of migrants, it’s about insanity of our own citizens and about the future of the country. It would be great to make the electorate aware of just this particular number: the Russian labor force is reduced by one million people (every year!). What will happen to Russia once the migrants turn to other, more friendly countries? Numerous studies show: without the influx of migrants the Russian economy will fall into decay, and each of us, Russians, will become poorer. Today migrants’ contribution to the national GDP is about 7%.

In the meantime the campaign is gaining momentum, tough police raids have swept through many cities and villages of Russia. Media with passion of sports commentators talks about the number of captured, the exploits of vigilante teams (helping the FMS), the monstrous local initiatives. In Kronstadt, for example, they installed boxes for anonymous letters in public places, introduced free telephone line to report on those who “came in large numbers”: do not be afraid! Somebody even came up with the idea to put some markers on immigrants’ clothes (right, why not certain yellow stars right away?).

The Moscow police took similar steps this past week. First, the police took to the streets to stop the riots. Then, however, they released most of the rioters they arrested, and instead arrested more than 1200 migrant workers. The police then arrested those in charge of the vegetable warehouse which was the focus of the riots, and then arrested the alleged murderer who sparked the riots, beating him and humiliating him in a ridiculous and offensive piece of political theater. These aren’t calculated moves designed to make Russia’s cities safer and to improve the living and working conditions of migrants. This isn’t a systemic calculation, designed to alleviate a humanitarian problem and improve Russia’s economy in the process. These are thuggish, erratic, and potentially dangerous reactions of a government that only seems to be drawn to action when it is led by angry neo-Nazis, destroying public and private property in fits of rage.

Russia”s visa policies are also changing, but not to fix problems like the ones we’ve described. In order to double down on Russocentric and antiquated trade protectionism, Putin is lashing out at any neighboring countries who are more interested in joining the European Union than the Kremlin alternative, the Customs Union. As a response, Putin initiated a full-scale trade war against Ukraine, closing its borders to both guest workers and imports, and threatening to deport anyone with a Ukrainian accent. A story that received less attention is that Russia also denied entry to almost 200,000 Moldovan guest workers, and is considering deporting more than 250,000 other immigrants, for essentially the same reason. But Ukrainian and Moldovan migrant workers are more likely to have legitimate living and working conditions than migrants from the Caucasus or Asia.

Will these other countries face visa regimes now that Moscow’s nationalists have taken to the streets? It’s important to note that while many countries do not face visa regimes, they have trade and labor agreements, and a significant number of businessmen and politicians on both sides of the border benefit from the status quo. So if there is not systematic change, there may be ruthless and indiscriminate crackdowns that appear like change but in reality just mask business as usual.

There are more signs that the Kremlin is learning all the wrong lessons. While RT (a Kremlin-owned news operation propagating Putin’s propaganda to the English-speaking world) openly condemning nationalist sentiment expressed by opposition leader Alexei Navalny,  one of the Kremlin’s Russian-language mouthpieces, Izvestia, published similar sentiments expressed by a political scientist and a former Moscow mayor. Furthermore, reading the words of Navalny, translated by The Interpreter, his complaints may be hiding an underlying racist subtext, but he is the one calling for specific and systemic reform of immigration, policing, and zoning policies. One needs to look no further than the current mayor of Moscow, a man who has overseen the growth of the immigration problem but is now railing against it, to find even more racially-insensitive and worrisome words:

Moscow is a Russian city and it should remain that way. It is not Chinese, Tajik or Uzbek,” Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper in May. “People who speak Russian badly and who have a different culture are better off living in their own country.”